Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Goats Cheese & Tomato Souffles

As a child I was brought up on goat's milk as I was allergic to cow's milk. I have, ever since loved the taste and smell of goat's milk, goat's yoghurt and most of all goat's cheese.

We are so lucky in Tasmania with good goat's cheese. My favorites are Bothwell and Meredith Dairy cheeses.

Tonight I fancied a goats cheese souffle and as I had four large vine ripened tomatoes it became a goat's cheese and tomato souffle.

The picture above is not of tonight's result as Mary and I were too hungry to muck about taking a photograph. You'll have to trust me therefore when I say that they turned out extremely well.

The mix I used was entirely a product of my own imagination so I thought I would share it before I forget.

The quantity of souffle mix was enough to make four of the larger size 300ml bowls which had been greased with good butter and popped in the freezer until just before filling.

I took a plain Bothwell goat's cheese log and crumbled it into a large mixing bowl and added 4 peeled and de-seeded tomatoes which had been quartered and roasted in good olive oil in the oven for about 20 minutes. I added a little Murray pink salt and a fine grind of black pepper and 3 egg yolks and mixed it all up with the blade of a knife.

My egg whites were six in number and beaten in the Kitchenaid on 8 until just forming soft peaks. I then added a pinch of cream of tartar and continued to beat until stiff.

Then the trick is to fold about a 1/4 of the egg whites to the cheese and tomato mix and combine before adding the rest and gently combining.

I filled the four souffle dishes almost to the top and wiped the rims clean before popping them in the oven at 220C for 12 minutes.

In the meantime I chopped 2 Lebanese cucumbers up and dressed them with the merest amount of walnut oil and dusted them with sumac.

The souffles rose evenly and the tops browned nicely while the centres were moist and the edges came away a nice gold colour.

The combination of the predominantly goat's cheese taste with the secondary flavor layer of tomato and the side dish of cucumbers enhanced by the sumac was awesome if I do say so myself.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

i Toad 2.0

Wind in the Willows, the much loved childrens' book by Kenneth Grahame was one of my favourites as a kid as messing about in boats was what I did.

Toad of Toad Hall was however, as close as I got to Toad in the Hole as Yorkshire Pudding was not cooked in my family.

It wasn't until after I set up my own kitchen and acquired a set of cast iron drop scone moulds that I started to investigate recipes and uses for Yorkshire Pudding.

It is now a standard accompaniment to roast beef at St Malo (our house) or is cooked just for fun. It is also a very useful medium in which to cook good pork sausages, as I did tonight.

It was in Jane Grigson's English Food that I found my favourite recipe for Yorkshire Pudding and it is simple and foolproof.

Start with 250g of plain flour in a mixing bowl and add a large pinch of salt and combine. Then make a well and break in 3 eggs and combine with a whisk while adding 600ml of milk or half milk half water. Don't worry about a few lumps or bits of unmixed egg yolk as it all disappears in the cooking.

Once you have got the mix made the world is your oyster. You can pour it into the baking dish that you have just taken the roast from to rest or you can start with a fresh dish and pour it in. For Toad in the Hole pour the mix over your pre- baked sausages but don't bury them altogether.

Whatever you do with it cook it in a 220 Celsius oven (fan forced if you have it), and leave it for 20 minutes or until risen and browned within an inch of its life. When ready cut into squares and serve.

If you are lucky enough to have a set of scone moulds (or you could do it with friand or small muffin moulds), put a teaspoon of suet or dripping into each one and superheat in the oven until smoking. Then pour in enough mix to come up almost to the top and put back in the oven til risen and brown (about 10 mins). The result will be prefectly round, light and golden brown individual yorkshire puddings.

And the fun with Yorkshire Pudding doesn't end with the main course. Like Jane Grigson's banker father I make a bee line for the kitchen after dinner and eat the left over warm eggy pudding smeared with Golden Syrup or raspberry jam or condensed milk. Yummy.

Give it a try, roast beef will never be the same again without Yorkshire Pudding and Toad in the Hole is a great weeknight meal with mushy peas and steamed potatoes.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Hot Pies and Grand Finals

My earliest football food memory is of an extremely rare trip to the North Hobart football ground with my late father.

I can't remember who was playing but I do recall sitting on the hard wooden seats of the grandstand and afterwards standing behind the goal posts at the foot of the stand barracking with Dad who was dressed in his weekend clothes with a grey gabardine overcoat and grey fedora.

At half time we went to the back of the grandstand where Dad bought a beer, a lemonade for me and hot meat pies for us both.

No squeeze packet tomato sauce in those days. The sauce was straight from a large bottle of Rosella. I remember this distinctly for at home at Lenah Valley, a Hobart suburb, my dear old Mum would not permit the sauce bottle to be left on the table while we ate. The reason for this was that in the late 50's there had been a murder in Hobart and the scene of the crime was a kitchen which was duly photographed and subsequently adorned the front page of the local newspaper. On the table in the photograph of the kitchen of the deceased's household was a large bottle of tomato sauce. Mum feared we would meet a similar fate unless the sauce was decanted into a small glass jug she kept for that purpose.

I digress. The taste of that half time pie is with me still. Whether it was the cold winter's day or the family occasion, or whether it was just that they made meat pies better in those days I don't know. For whatever reason I have long regarded both the old fashion filling and the pastry as superior.

There is no doubt that a half time pie at the football always tastes better than anywhere else. To this day when I am dragged off to the MCG by my colleagues to watch Melbourne play I always duck down when the siren goes and find the boy or the girl crying "hot pies". I habitually buy two pies on the never fulfilled expectation that I will feel like the second one, if a bit cold, at three quarter time. But the taste is not the same these days. The pastry is soggy and the filling is pale in colour and runny and insipid.

For years on Grand Final day I have set off early to my favorite bakery to buy the half time meat pies for our home viewing of the game but this year I resolved some weeks ago to bake my own and to do my best to re-create the pastry and the filling I remember from the old days.

The recipe I settled on for today's pies (pictured above), is for 6 pies baked in 8 cm base teflon coated pie tins. I buttered the pans and lined the bases with 15 cm circles of short crust pastry with lids made from 15 cm circles of egg washed puff pastry. Cooked at 200 - 220 Celsius fan forced for 20 minutes the pastry was fine. The short crust base was firm but melted in the mouth while the tops were flaky and buttery.

It was however the filling that brought tears to my eyes as I remembered the half times of my childhood.

I used 500g of lean beef mince and 250g of best veal mince. This was cooked off in olive oil with two finely chopped medium onions to which I added a good cup of beef stock, mixing a little of the stock with 1 1/2 tablespoons of corn flour to thicken. The secret mix to give taste, a great consistency and a perfect dark brown colour (and which worked well with no added salt and pepper), was 1 full cup of tomato sauce, 3 level tablespoons of worcestershire sauce, 1 1/2 tablespoons of HP sauce and a heaped teaspoon of Vegemite. This takes about ten minutes to simmer and thicken after first bringing to the boil and when cooled is just perfect to fill the pies without soaking the pastry.
Go on try it!

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Game Birds & Bird Dogs

I appreciate that many people these days have difficulty in accepting the practice of shooting and killing game birds for the table. They cannot understand the need for this.

Well I am not going to argue about this with those people. If they, for whatever reason, genetic, cultural or environmental, have never felt the pull of harvesting wild food then no amount of explaining will help.

Nor am I about to attempt a justification based on the economic considerations of supplementing household larders.

I do not enjoy field shooting because of a love of firearms. I do not enjoy killing feathered game for the target practice. I enjoy even less the long tedious job of plucking and dressing game birds. But the joy of taking the birds to the kitchen, of transforming them into something uniquely flavoursome and satisfying is part of the inexplicable attachment I have to the gathering of all produce.

It is to me the same of course as catching abalone and crayfish, but, less obviously, it is
the same to me as watching my late Mum pulling a plant of new season's potatoes or my picking of asparagus or artichokes or peas or strawberries and raspberries. It is the same to me as watching the tomatoes growing in my garden and picking them when their aroma is intoxicating.

Now Digby Anderson, the former food writer for the Spectator would have said "well a chap likes field shot game and if you invite someone to dinner who doesn't then ask them to leave and never invite them back". I don't think I would ever go that far but equally I doubt that anyone who shares my table would have any real concern. People who appreciate food beyond nourishment accept that food involves the death of that which we eat, plant or animal, and that respect for produce is all that is required in homage.

I have shot and cooked and eaten a great variety of game birds. They include Snipe, Quail, Pheasant, Duck, Guinea Fowl, Partridge, Pheasant, Wild Turkey, Cape Barren Geese, Native Hen and Swan. Some of these species are protected now, and for good reason, but they have not always been.

Some of these birds are very difficult to hunt and I have over the years trained gun dogs to assist in the task. The thrill of watching my L'Epagneul Breton, Katie, (pictured left, blind in retirement), hurtle down island cliffs to recover a fallen quail, or sit at dusk submerged in a water hole, save for her head, to pick up duck, or swim out to sea for a kilometre or more to bring back a pheasant being swept offshore by the tide, is something only a gundog lover and hunter can understand. My dear old Dad used to look on in awe at Katie's retrieving skills.

The ways of cooking game birds are many and varied. I have cooked wild turkeys, Cape Barren geese ( pictured above stuffed with quail) and guinea fowl with great success in a Weber kettle barbecue. In fact a Weber used in accordance with instructions is virtually foolproof. The geese can also be turned into the best rillettes or crumbed as great breast schnitzels dusted first with salt and garlic.

Quail I have rotisseried in the Smeg and served with rosti or baked as pithiviers with buttery pastry. Pheasant make magnificient game pies and soup as well as the traditional barded roast. Snipe and Guinea fowl (pictured below), are best roasted simply, heads on, and served with polenta and washed down with Soave.

The very best of all game birds are however, in my view, Red Leg Partridge and the very best way of cooking partridge is to encase them in a salt hough and bake them. When the dough breaks the browned but perfectly moist partridge are so bursting with flavour and so succulent it is quite possible one has died and gone to heaven. I have never known a dish like it. My brother Tony has cooked hangis with me over the years and he has wrapped Peking ducks in leaves and haunches of kangaroo in bread dough, but not even the superb results given by this slow underground cooking comes close to partridge in overcoats.

As a footnote to this post Mary and I were in Sydney last night and dined late after I had been working. We had a wonderful meal at Bilson's where serendipity saw Red Leg Partridge on the menu. It was roasted leg and breasts separately and served with a PX sauce and smoked cubes of brioche dipped in egg and cooked with a slice of foie gras atop. Washed down with an '05 Bouchard Mersault 1st Cru it was delicious.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

First Catch Your Chicken

Not long after the end of the Second World War when my parents moved to Hobart they set up a chicken farm, providing fresh chickens and eggs to the Hobart market.

Weird in a way, that I was fatally allergic to eggs and yet in my back yard there were 3000 chickens laying beautiful specimens every day.

Worse than that, my mother being a farm girl was a superb cook who made a lovely, light sponge cake that was to die for. Believe me I tried.

Come to think of it, my brother Tony who later, (long before restaurants in Hobart), as a chef at Wrest Point, glazed the finest chaud-froid chickens in the Larousse style, also tried to kill himself over the chooks. He badly cut his wrist on a glass water hopper while refilling it for the Orpingtons.

Anyway, to cut to the chase, chicken pie has always been a favorite of mine, but a very rustic version. I made one today to accompany a Sancerre that Roger and Sue from Terroir Wines are tempting us with and as the camera was handy I thought I would try a visual recipe. This pie is so simple that it lends itself to it.

So, after first catching your chook, in my case these days a Groenewold 13 or 14, deal with it as pictured above.

After about an hour and a half of the merest simmer let the chicken cool in its own stock while you make the pastry. Again simplicity is the key so don't expect chefy golden brown pastry on the finished product. Blitz 90g of frozen butter cubes in 135g of plain flour with a pinch of salt in a food processor until grainy. Then sprinkle on 2 tablespoons of water and pulse until the pastry forms a ball. Wrap the ball in cling wrap and chill in the fridge for at least 2o minutes.

While that's happening cut up your vegies and Bok's bacon and 3 hard boiled eggs. See below.

Next, make a white sauce from 3 tablespoons of butter, 2 tablespoons of plain flour and 2 cups of the chicken stock. Add 2 teaspoons of Worcestershire Sauce or HP Sauce and a handful of chopped parsley, salt and pepper. I'm using the pink Murray salt these days, I think everyone is.

Grease your deep pie dish, ( it's a lot of filling so choose a dish 6-8 cm deep) with butter and arrange your eggs, bacon, a handful of peas and your vegies along with the cooled chicken you have pulled apart. Pour over the sauce. I always use all the sauce because I love the pie liquid to spill over the sides. Be more careful and use a pie rest if you want presentation.

To this point you should look something like this.

Now, roll your pastry out and bang it on top. Egg wash and decorate til your heart's content and cut a vent slit and then you should look thus:

That in my opinion is the climax of the dish for prettiness. After that the sexy bit is in the eating. Anyway, that's what I like about it. It's a rustic dish and it's about eating it and about not too much fiddling about in getting there.

Whoops I've lost my rhythm. Back to the method. Pop the pie into a 200 Celsius oven for 20 to 25 minutes and Bob's your uncle. Open a Domaine Daniel Chotard Sancerre Cuvee Marcel Henri Blanc 2007, (imported by Terroir Wines) and tuck in. Mmm I think I feel one coming on now.

Friday, September 11, 2009

One for Samuel

He is one of the nicest blokes I have ever met. No, not Samuel. Samuel is one of a new strain of Web germ.

One of those sad people, part voyeur, part stalker who leave unkind comments on blog sites under the influence of anonymous courage. No, not Samuel. Not at all. No, I refer to Lt Colonel Michael Dante Mori - Dan to his (name dropping) mates. A man of real courage.

Dan Mori, you will no doubt recall came to considerable prominence in Australia as an American Marine Corps Major, an army lawyer who was assigned to the defence of Detainee 002 - the infamous, now happily married and settled David Hicks.

Anyone interested in the legal and technical details of Hicks detention in the disgrace that was Guantanomo Bay can read Leigh Sales brilliant book
Detainee 002: The Case of David Hicks. The purpose of this post is only to mention Dan's courage and a dinner at the Drake Hotel in Chicago two years ago.

When I contributed in a small way on the sidelines of David Hicks case in the Federal Court in 2007 Dan was Major Michael Mori and he expected to stay so for some considerable time given that he had incurred the wrath of his superiors for his spirited defence of Hicks. He had been passed over for promotion twice and when I met him in Chicago in June 2007 he
expected to be cashiered under the Marine Corps "up or out" policy. I was delighted when he told me recently of his promotion. An Obama miracle.

The dinner was at the Drake Hotel, one of Chicago's swankiest old girls close to Charlie Trotter's still popular restaurant and with one of the finest banquet halls I have ever laid eyes on.
The occasion was the conclusion of the Australian Bar Association's bi-ennial offshore conference. I was the Association President at the time. I had invited Dan Mori to the dinner as our guest of Honour and to present him with Honorary Life Membership of the ABA.

In presenting this wonderful warm man with life membership I spoke to an audience that included three of the young Chicago lawyers who had worked
pro bono with Dan on David Hicks first habeas corpus application in the US. I said in part

"When Chief Defence Counsel for the Guantanamo detainees, Colonel William Gunn, appointed Dan Mori to represent David Hicks in 2003, it was thought that Hick’s case would be relatively uncomplicated. He was white, he spoke English and he had co-operated (so we are told), with his interrogators.

Nothing could have been further from the truth.

Dan Mori, faced with the impossible task of having his client dealt with fairly and in accordance with the Rule of Law successfully, by his advocacy for Hicks, shifted attention to the flawed military commission process.

Australian Journalist Leigh Sales has written -

“Through the force of his personality and a tireless media blitz, Mori managed to prick Australia’s conscience about Guantanamo Bay. He reminded us of the values for which his country and ours were supposed to stand.”

As Dan told the ABC in 2004 in an interview -

“America’s always had a proud tradition of ensuring fairness and due process. Now is not the time to sacrifice those values”.

It is ironic that one of the books Hicks was not allowed access to in his 5 years of detention was Harper Lee’s, “To Kill A Mockingbird” – a book which has sold over 30 million copies in 40 languages.

Ironic, because a comparison of Dan Mori to Atticus Finch is entirely justified.

One member of the “Idlers Club” observed in Harper Lee’s novel -

“Lemme tell you something now, Billy - you know the Court appointed him to defend that nigger”

The Idlers response was -

“Yeah, but Atticus aims to defend him that’s what I don’t like about it”.

Before I present Major Mori with a Certificate of Honorary Membership I should recognise the presence here tonight to witness this award of three members of the Chicago based firm of Jenner and Block, who represented David Hicks, pro bono, in his petition for Habeas Corpus in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia.

They are, Andy Jacobson, Andrew Vail and David Walters.

Major Michael Dante Mori, this award of Honorary Membership of the Australian Bar Association recognizes your work in consistently seeking to have your client, David Hicks, dealt with fairly and in accordance with the Rule of Law. It is the time honoured role of an advocate to stand between the State and an individual and you have done that in the finest tradition of our profession."

It was a great night and for a large banquet the food and wine wasn't half bad.

The fascinating thing was that a week later when Mary and I were in New York I had a phone call from a Professor Raymond who had been at the Chicago dinner. Jim Raymond was the Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Alabama and was friend of Harper Lee who, in her 80's, lived as a recluse but was from time to time visited by Jim and his friend who was Lee's biographer. Professor Raymond passed on to Harper Lee that her story lived on, in the form of an US Marine Corps major and was recounted 45 years on, via a speech at a dinner in Chicago. Harper Lee only ever wrote one book, but it was a good one.

Oh the menu - it was such a great night that I really can't remember anything except for the soup and the dessert. The soup was the famous Drake Hotel Bookbinder soup made from Red Snapper and the signature dish of the Cape Cod Room restaurant at the hotel which has been operating since 1933. The dessert was a Cheeseburger, Chips and Shake. That was a supersize me take on a chocolate ice cream "hamburger", apple "fries" and strawberry milk "shake".

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Gay Abandon

It is ironic in a sense that the woman who ran Sydney’s famous Berowra Water’s Inn for 18 years has now abandoned the restaurant scene and writes with passion and beauty about the joy of simplicity in digestion.

Gay Bilson’s “On Digestion” is the second in the Melbourne University Press wonderful “Little Books on Big Themes” series that I have recently reviewed. It is a stream of consciousness, prosaic piece in which Bilson explores her new attitudes to food and eating;

”Experience is everything” she says. “It isn’t only that I am much older but that I have now have grown food... I had no knowledge then of what now gives pleasure. A different philosophy and practice is now possible.”

Of the food of Heston Blumenthal’s (pre food scare) Fat Duck at Bray in England and Spanish innovator Ferran Adria’s El Bulli Bilson's new philosophy is evident;

“The apotheosis of this extreme distance between restaurant and domestic food is the rise of what has been dubbed molecular gastronomy”.

But this is not a book concerned simply with nostalgic longing for simpler restaurant experiences and home cooking. On the contrary it is an intriguing and thought provoking tour of food and language, knowledge and practice, packaging and trust, television chefs and the disconnect between good food, food produce and price.

Bilson claims she is arguing the case for being content not to know everything for;

“Surely this is what good digestion is: a place where experience and language meet and mean the same thing”.

She expresses a slight discomfort with the need to know as much as she might know through reading, when experience and thoughtful practice would suffice. I am not convinced by this argument. The power of her food prose almost impeaches her as her own witness in the case she argues.

“The last pomegranates hang so heavily on the almost bare tree in late autumn, directly in front of the kitchen window. Cultivating them, and so cultivating ourselves, we who are interested in food beyond nourishment are moved to know more and more, to turn from garden, from the kitchen itself, to the bench with the books...”

For me, the answer to Bilson herself provides the answer to her, perhaps deliberately posited, dilemma when she writes;

“To be a great poet is to have a gift.To be a truly great cook is to have a gift also.To cook simply and to share is to be involved in gift making”.

So regarded there is a seat at Bilson’s table for everyone, and arguably, three seats for her.

The furthest stretch between language and consumption, she contends, are the advertisements for “industrial foods” with their lists of ingredients which are marvellously off putting. The problem is, she says;

“...those of us who shun foods we deem not to be food, and who read labels, have the money and the culinary resourcefulness to choose not to eat them, while those with less income, less culinary education and less choice take the additives, the long shelf life, the depleted flavours and textures, and the relatively low cost to be a normal diet.”

Bilson’s concern with the relationship between good food and money is evident throughout her essay - as to manufactured foods and restaurant meals and as to simple produce. Her self abnegation is curious but, albeit she doesn’t like crowds and is disconnected and immobilized by a solitary nature, she is, as she claims for herself, “ever utopian” . She envisages everyone with surplus produce putting it in front of their house for anyone’s taking. This she hypothesizes is a solution to “the terrible connection food has to money” Consider;

“Recently, at the beginning of winter, shops which sell fruit and vegetables were charging such a high price for lemons (mostly imported, mostly lacking the quiddity of lemons) that it became unconscionable to purchase them. It is difficult to think of one plate of food which the lemon, either juice or peel, does not improve.The many lemon trees in this area, in front and back yards, in paddocks and leaning over fences, were laden with fruit; there was a luxury of lemons.”

Nor does television escape Bilson’s philosophical scrutiny. Citing Robert Hughes quip “the victory of television over the object of its debate” she writes;

“The media pays excessive, fulsome attention to some of these chefs. They have become personalities and their food has become an aesthetic phenomenon. Via magazines, newspapers, their books and television we know their faces and their completed dishes, but there is a void in between. Television produces more evidence of real cooking, but the screen is the ultimate buffer. Television cooks and their comperes tasting a dish and expressing ecstatic satisfaction which falls flat on the glass screen come close to causing offense”.

While Bilson remains an enigma, her “Little Book” is illuminating. It is a powerfully constructed message which searches for an ultimate reality in food thinking. Its value is as much in it’s suggested solutions as in its postulated problems. Indeed the author acknowledges that the writing of Ihab Hassan has taught her much about the dangers of didacticism without effecting any cure.

Australia is fortunate to have a poet and great chef and gift maker whose mind, as Simon Thomsen recently tweeted, “remains a smorgasbord”.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Not So Posh Nosh

Lawyers, as the Bard wrote, "strive mightily but eat and drink as friends".

The tradition of barristers eating dinners is as old as the Inns of Court in London. All young English barristers, called Readers or Pupils, were required to eat a number of dinners at Inns, such as Grays Inn or Lincoln's Inn, or the Inner Temple, before being accepted at the Bar. But my God, as the picture above depicts, the spin off from that practice can be stuffy and boring. Moreover, as (and we will see) clothes maketh not the person, so too fine surroundings do not make a meal. Or at least a good meal.

Many of the clubs at which I have eaten have elderly diminutive stewards and oversized, aged silver cutlery - which prompted one of my witty mates, now a Supreme Court Justice, to once quip that they were places where the waiters were small and the soup spoons were large.

I went to Launceston in northern Tasmania to serve my articles of apprenticeship in 1974. While the Deed of Apprenticeship I was obliged to execute admonished me to wear clean underwear and not to steal my Master's pencils and stamps, nonetheless Launcestonian lawyery types were amazingly liberated. Unlike Hobart, Launceston apprentices were permitted to eat Bar Dinners - known as Circuit Dinners with qualified barristers. These bar dinners were given for visiting "Circus" judges, as Rumpole dubbed them.

These dinners were however, notable more for their drunken speech making, joke telling, singing and "passing the Port" than they were for their food. I am sure that the good souls in their antiquated scullery kitchens also strove mightily that we might eat and drink as friends but somehow they never quite made the grade. So much was the emphasis on carousing that one gentleman's club banned Bar dinners for some years after an altercation occurred between two gentlemen. A difference of learned opinion that apparently was witnessed by no-one, all 100 odd attendees having gone to the Gents at the same time.

So it was, that from 1974 until recent years when I stopped attending, I ate an estimated 120 odd of these not so posh noshes. The menus rarely varied. Frequently one started with floury Brown Soup, moved to overcooked Roast Beef and finished with anaemic Apple Pie. There were no doubt variations on the theme but if there were they were not so memorable that I do - remember that is.

One one notable occasion, a rare one where barristers partners were permitted, Mary lost a perfectly useful old filling in a rather older piece of Boeuf Roti (the posh name for the ubiquitous roast beef). She discreetly headed for the Powder Room and in the best traditions of the bar and the three wise monkeys apparently missed no fisticuffs - or not any she saw anyway.

Perhaps the finest meal I had at one of these black tie gentlemen's club dinners was the occasion some years ago when Tom Samek was brought in as guest chef and served Crow and Native Hen. Believe it or not they were excellent.

Interstate, things have not been so grim in my experience. Tribal gatherings such as the NSW Bench and Bar Dinners held every year in May are attended by as many as 800 barristers. No doubt there are economies of scale as these dinners are held at venues such as The Westin Ballroom and the Hilton. Usually alternate drop service, the modern Australian food presented on these nights is surprisingly good and the logistics of getting 2,400 plates to the table within such a short space of time as to allow for the numerous speeches to be heard in relative silence, leaves me in awe.

Barristers and food have thus had a symbiotic relationship for several hundred years. It was never more obvious than in the 1980's when we frequented restaurants every working day for lunch. I distinctly recall one well known and much loved Launceston restaurateur wringing his hands and telling me and my party, near to tears for fear of my displeasure, that, as with the previous day, his only special was the prawns flambeed in Pernod. He was very sorry Mr Estcourt.

And so he was, but not nearly as sorry as Mr Estcourt was when months later the Federal Treasurer decided that the restaurant industry should no longer be propped up with taxpayer's dollars in this way, no matter how many jobs might be lost as a result of doing away with the relevant tax deduction.

That Christmas, it was 1986 - the year is burnt into my cerebellum alongside the year of the great Fernand Point's untimely death - Mary's late mother Monica presented me with an odd present. It was a brown paper bag inscribed with the words
"Keating's Business Lunch".

These days I have chambers in Hobart and in Melbourne and I usually opt for a light lunch at places such as Dev'Lish, Pidgeon Hole or Tricycle in Hobart or Nicks, Demi Tasse or Hanabishi in Melbourne. Light on the waist and light on the pocket. A trip to the Victorian Bar's own Essoign Club in Owen Dixon Chambers or to the Melbourne Club with it's beautiful walled garden is now the exception rather than the rule - but I am happy to report that the food is rather good in both places. After all one does crave Lamb's Fry and Bacon sometimes!

RIP 5 March 1955

Friday, September 4, 2009

Spit Roast Recollections

From the day I first heard Shakespeare's line about picking parsley to stuff a rabbit I have had a fascination with roasting whole animals.

Any book I read that concerned itself, even in passing, with rustic methods of cooking rabbits and hare and venison or fowl or goose had me salivating at the thought of slowly turning the spit by a riverbank as I waited for my herb anointed supper to roast.

Spit roasting as I grew up was not in vogue. Ox roasts may have been, before that time, as fund raisers, and pig roasts became so afterwards, as the ubiquitous football club bonding booze up, but my father took some persuading at the end of my first year of university to allow me to have a lamb spit roast at our sea side house as a break up bash.

My brother Tony, as a chef, was my adviser and together we dug the pit to take the fire and erected the spit we constructed from star pickets, steel rod and wire. No mechanical drive was involved in 1970 and we largely had to work things out for ourselves.

The pit was about a metre wide and 1/2 metre deep and the star pickets were crossed so as to provide a forked top on which the steel rod, which was passed right through the lamb, was placed. At one end the rod had two right angle bends to form a turning handle.

The pit was filled with wood and burned down to coals before the cooking started. The lamb, which was stuffed with chickens, was turned by hand for about three to four hours. The turning was done in shifts by my brother and numerous guests between trips backwards and forwards to the beer keg, actually still wooden in 1970.

My brother's best cooking aid was a (new) dish mop tied to a broom stick which was repeatedly dipped in an oil based marinade and used to baste the rotating beast. I have since learned that better than a marinade is warm salty water which constantly applied via a dish mop leaves the skin crispy and the flesh moist.

After that first year the spit roast became a regular end of final term break up function for my law year. They were much looked forward to for the eating and drinking and the warmth of the fire, the joy of the spectacle and above all, the anticipation of feasting on the turning beast to be served with potatoes baked in the dying coals and a simple green salad. In later years we became mechanised with various motors but the thrill of the hand turned spit is with me still and the experience was by far the most satisfying.

In 1982 Mary, (who with the help of my father had secured my affections at one of the seaside spit roasts), and I travelled to Greece for the first time. Being in Athens on Holy Thursday of the Greek Easter we saw many people walking through the streets carrying dressed whole lambs under their arms, loosely wrapped in butcher's paper, heads dangling. It was something of a mystery to us until Easter Sunday when, after we boarded the train from Athens to Patras amid the traditional greeting of
"Christos anesti " and the response " Alethos anesti" - "Christ is risen" - "Risen indeed", we observed, as we rattled past backyard after backyard of suburban Athens, families gathered around their hand turned spits waiting for the lamb to roast for their festive lunch. It was me who was in heaven!

In more recent times I have used more sophisticated spit roasters designed and built by my friend and colleague Peter Barker who for years had a Boxing Day lamb roast at his home under Mt Wellington. In about 1994 I had a rites of Spring party in Mary's lovely garden and a lamb was duly hoist on the spit by Tony and I and cooked and consumed with a string quartet playing as our guests ate.

The picture above was taken at a New Years pig roast in 2006 when I lowered my standards and used a gas fired "static" spit oven, but, I must confess, with very good results from a crackling point of view.

The rather strange expression on my face and turn of wrist is emulating the pose of Rino Codognotto, uncle of the late and legendary Mietta O'Donnell. Mietta's Uncle Rino was a master of the spit roast and his detailed descriptions of constructing the pit and the spit and of the cooking methods involved for pork and lamb are set out in
Mietta's Italian Family Recipes, a great book and a must read for anyone wanting to get started in traditional spit roasting.

So get to it.